Indian Scientists Discover New Species of Moss in Antartica

Indian scientists have done it again. A new species of moss has been identified by India scientists. The species has been named Bryum bharatiensis. In the year 2016, polar scientists from India took an expedition to Antarctica and came across a species of moss. This expedition was an official overseas delegation, an Indian mission. Since 1981, a group of scientists from India set out to Antarctica on an expedition and so far, they have conducted 40 expeditions, this year happening to be the 40th. India established its first station, Dakshin Gangotri that submerged in the ice shelf. Currently, there are two stations Maitri and Bharathi that are fully functional all year-round.

Dr Felix Bast, Associate Professor and Head, Botany Dept at the Central University of Punjab is a leading scientist in this discovery and was part of the 36th expedition that took place in from December 2016 till April 2017. He was on this mission with several other scientists and this project also happens to be a part of his student, Wahid Ul Rahman doctoral thesis. This project has been conducted in collaboration with Dr Kriti Gupta, Head, Dept of Botany at DAV College, Punjab.

Dr Bast in Antartica

Mosses are extremophiles which means they can withstand extreme environmental conditions. These mosses stay submerged in the ice during the long winters. When summer sets in and the ice melts slowly, the mosses appear on the surface and they soak up the water to bring themselves back to life. The mosses grew in plenty where penguin population was high. The excreta of the penguins are high in nitrogen that is picked up by the moss for its growth. Scientists have spent five years to sequence the DNA and compare it characteristics with other plant species.

In a conversation with CSP, Dr Bast spoke to us about the challenges and the future research that is involved.

He said, “It’s absolutely exciting, a curiosity driven work!” But one might say green life in Antarctica is quite alarming which is why this discovery has opened our eyes wider to global warming. According to geologists, with the current trend in global warming, Antarctica can break and this will create a huge impact on the planet. With large volumes of ice sheets melting, not only is the sea-level rising, but Earth’s gravity is also being affected. The northern hemisphere occupied by continents mostly than the southern hemisphere. If the continent loses all its ice, it can also cause an impact on Earth’s rotation.

The challenges faced during the expedition are many. It is a life and death situation while working in Antarctica. Due to global warming, ice sheets are melting, forming crevices under the sheets. Prior to heading out on the expedition, scientists undergo training at Auli and Mana with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to adapt to extreme temperatures.  The journey to Antarctica commenced from Cape Town, South Africa in the Russian icebreaker ship “m/v Ivan Papanin. Travelling to Antarctica by ship is also a tumultuous journey. Crossing the 40-degree latitude is accompanied by extraordinarily strong winds and large waves. Luckily, COVID has not stepped foot and caused havoc. Despite the challenges faced, Dr Bast is happy to be of service to science and nation.

This discovery is a classic blue skies research where real-world applications do not matter. “In Indian history, mathematicians and astronomers like Aryabhata looked at the skies and the constellations to study and understand the way the universe works. Recently, IISER Pune in collaboration with team of scientists and published a new constellation discovery Saraswati. There is no immediate application based on this work. But that doesn’t make the findings mediocre”, said Dr Bast.

This discovery also highlights how insignificant the metric Impact Factors really is in curiosity-driven exploratory research. A usual practice for scientists and academicians in India is to judge the quality of journals by looking at Impact Factor, a single number that purportedly sums up the quality of the publication. However, a global accord called San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) signed in 2013 declared that Impact Factors should not be considered to judge the quality of publications. The journal in which Prof. Bast published this key international discovery, Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity (Elsevier), has only 0.8 Impact Factor, which is comparatively low. Inspire of that, the research got prominently featured in many global media giants including BBC and The Independent. The reason is straightforward; the discovery is truly international, ground-breaking and original. Curiosity-driven exploratory research makes no tall promises on real-world applications and rarely makes them into journals with high Impact Factors. An article published in British Journal Nature in 2020 by Frank-Thorsten Krell from Natural History Museum in London argued why Impact Factors make no sense in taxonomy and other allied disciplines. “On the one hand, uninspiring research that makes tall promises can easily get published in high impact factor journals. Such stories rarely cut into international media attention. On the other hand, curiosity-driven exploratory research also called ‘blue-skies’ research, often require far less budget.”, Dr Bast commented.

Indian researchers from within and across the globe continue to bring laurels to the country. With this current discovery, it is important to adopt green solutions for the benefit of the planet and our scientists have paved the way to that realisation. According to Dr Bast, unless the right policies are framed and people put their hands together to be more sustainable, it is not going to be an easy ride.